- Home -
- Topics -
- Links -
- Blogs -
- Search -
Self Immolation, Media Impact, and the Vietnam War

"I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think…. As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him." -David Halberstam


Self Immolation, Media Impact, and the Vietnam War

On June 11th, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist Monk from Hue, Vietnam made one of the most dramatic anti-war protests in the history of war. Duc and other monks drove to a busy intersection in Hue and sat down. The fellow monks doused him in gasoline as he assumed the traditional Lotus Position of meditation. Duc then lit a match and proceeded to burn to death in minutes. Many witnesses were present for the self immolation and it remains one of the most vivid war time images.

In the months prior to the demonstration, Duc sent numerous letters to fellow monks and to the Vietnamese Government expressing his discontent with the oppressive North Vietnamese Government and restrictive Catholic practices. In Duc’s letters to the repressive government he demanded that the government lift its ban on flying the traditional Buddhist flag, grants Buddhists the same rights as Catholics, stop detaining Buddhists, allow Buddhists equal rights to spread and practice their religion freely, and to pay fair compensation to the families of victims while punishing those responsible for the unjust deaths.

When Duc’s requests were not addressed he proceeded with the self immolation. Following his death, Thich Quang Duc was cremated and legend has it that his heart would not burn. As a result, his heart is considered Holy and is in the custody of the Reserve Bank of Vietnam.

While many considered Thich Quang Duc’s self immolation to be an act of suicide, Thich Nhat Hanh defended his fellow monk.
"The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance…. The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people…. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people. This is not suicide."

As a result of Thich Quan Duc’s self immolation, the picture became widespread worldwide news. The same day in which the picture was taken, it appeared on President Kennedy’s desk. The coverage of the incident further served to spread Buddhism and led to the eventual overthrow of the Diem Regime in South Vietnam. When the picture of the self immolation appeared in the New York Times the next day, a series of monks around the world followed with their own self immolation.


Back to Media Impact